The Code Talker

Veterans from Other Wars

 

My experience with a Navajo Code Talker

A recollection by Martin Edelman, VVA 126 

                In 2001, I was managing the Soldier’, Sailors’, Marines’ and Airmen’s Club (SSMAC) in Manhattan.  (The Club, on Lexington by 37th Street, is a not-for-profit hotel serving military actives, retirees, veterans and cadets since 1919).  Each year, the Club sponsors a Military Ball as its major fund raiser event and was scheduled to honor the U.S. Coast Guard in October. 

 

                On July 26, 2001 the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers were honored by President Bush with a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony at the White House.  The SSMAC’s chairman’s wife suggested that it would be great if we could get one of them to appear at our Military Ball to be honored by our membership and friends. 

 

                I called New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman and asked if he could provide me the names of the remaining original Code Talkers.  His office provided me the names of the five men and related that one could not travel.  I contacted the other four and was delighted John Brown Jr would be interested in attending our Military Ball.  Since he did not have a phone or email, I began coordinating the trip with his son, Virgil Brown.  Virgil told me that his dad and mom had never been to New York City and looked forward to it.  The plans were to have John, his wife Loncie and son Virgil make the trip for four days surrounding the Ball. 

 

                The Browns were to fly to JFK and I would pick them up at the airport, take them to their hotel, give them a tour of NYC, get them to the Ball and back, show them the Club and some of Manhattan, and get them to their return flight.  Through the Club’s Board member, Bill McShane, we obtained complimentary accommodations at the Manhattan East Suites Hotels (now called the Affinia). 

 

                Soon after the September 11th attacks, I spoke to Virgil, and his mom told him that she did not want to fly.  I thought about alternatives and they agreed to travel by train.  I booked a private cabin with meals for them from Albuquerque, NM to Chicago, and Chicago to Penn Station.

 

                I was at Penn Station to greet them when they arrived after their 46 hour trip.  I recognized John Brown Jr from his photos.  (You can see some of these by going to the Navajo Code Talkers website at http://bingaman.senate.gov/features/codetalkers/call/cfm).

 

                We proceeded to the Lyden Gardens Hotel on East 64th Street.  We registered and went up to a 2-bedroom suite on the Penthouse floor.  They remarked how lavish everything was, 

 

                When I went to leave to get back to work at the Club, John asked me if it was a safe neighborhood.  I told him that it was and that I had been living just two blocks away for 30 years.  He asked me to stay a while longer and take them to dinner.  I took them to an early dinner at China Fun and ordered for them.  They devoured everything and spoke highly of the Chinese food that they had rarely eaten before.  John asked me what ethnicity I was and I told him American Jewish.  He asked if there were special foods that I eat.  I told him that I would take him to sample some Jewish style food the next day at lunch and asked them to meet me at the Club at about 11 AM advising them to take a taxi.

              
                At about 11 AM the Browns arrived.  I gave them a tour of the SSMAC Club and then took them to Sarge’s Deli nearby.  I ordered pastrami, corned beef, brisket, tongue, chopped liver, cole slaw and potato salad.  Everything was devoured.  They had never eaten Jewish food before and loved it.

 

                They wanted to see the Empire State Building so we walked over.  The elder Browns were in their 80s but quite fit for walking.  While we walked several people stared at John in his colorful yellow Navajo outfit and big 10-gallon hat.  One stranger approached him and asked if he was Navajo and John was pleased to say that he was and had a brief conversation.  Virgil expressed an interest in touring Manhattan so I booked the three of them for a Gray Line tour for the afternoon.  I told them that I would pick them up from their hotel at 6 PM for the Military Ball. 

 

                We arrived at the Military Ball at The Plaza and John and his family were welcomed by the leadership of the SSMA Club and the other honorees for the evening.  They included Coast Guard Commandant Admiral James Loy and Vice-Admiral Robert Price.  When it came time for John to address the audience, we were delightfully pleased that he walked and spoke with clarity and vigor.  He left with the message that he was proud to be an American and a Marine but was not proud of how Native Americans had been treated.  We all understood his message and thanked him with great applause. 

 

                When I brought them to their train for the return trip, John invited me to visit him at his home on the Navajo reservation in Crystal, NM.  He added that his home was very simple and not like New York.  I thanked him for his visit and wished him continued health.

 

                Over two years went by when I thought about the invitation to visit John Brown Jr at his home.  I finally decided with my wife Jayne, that we should not put it off too long since John was in his mid-80s.  I called Virgil and booked dates for us to visit in June 2004. 

 

                We flew into Albuquerque and hired a car to drive the 4-hour trip to Chenli, AZ.  We booked into the Canyon De Chelly Holiday Inn and met the Browns and Virgil’s wife Mirakhel at the hotel dining room.  We embraced and John asked me what I would like to see and do.  I told him that we would like to visit his home, have a Navajo meal and see the land where he grew up.  During the two days, we had John and Virgil as tour guides. 

 

                After dinner, we went to the beginnings of a Navajo”Squaw Dance” where there was outdoor chanting looking to rid evil spirits from the house of one of the families.  We did not get to stay because John was told that they did not want outsiders.  John and his family were embarrassed that their friends were not welcome, but we understood. 

 

                The next morning, we met at Virgil’s house in Tsaile, AZ.  We were greeted by Mirakhel’s full-grown wolf named Silver Dawn.  She raised him from a pup and he did not bark and was better behaved than most dogs.  He spent the day with us as did Virgil’s son, John III. 

 

                We traveled by pick-up truck and van across the border to Crystal, New Mexico where John and Loncie have been living since they built their house and livestock corral over 50 years before.  The last five miles or so was on a dirt road.  John told me in advance that they lived simply and we should not judge his “mess” including that his indoor plumbing was not working due to recent sewer problem. 

 

                We sat in his house for a few minutes and then John gave us a tour of his ranch including his workshop with a painted sign “Beware of Bobcat”, his corral with ewe and lamb, goat and llama, the latter two being gifts.  He only recently, at age 82, sold off 40 sheep that he felt he could no longer give the proper care.  John related that his mother had recently celebrated her 100th birthday and Loncie related that her mother had woven a quilt for Nelson Rockefeller. 

 

                We then motored back to Chenli for a lunch at a diner that catered to the WWII Navajo Code Talkers.  We saw the room with his picture among many others.  We had some fry-bread, beans, burritos and iced tea.  There is no alcohol on the Navajo reservation. 

 

                Afterward, John took us to the Canyon de Chelly which was very close to our motel.  It is a small version of the Grand Canyon but with no water in its river bed.  He pointed out where he and his family spent the summer at the bottom of the canyon caring for their sheep.  John and Loncie hiked with us part of the way down the 1.25 mile trail.  We hiked with Virgil and Mirakhel to the bottom to see the remains of the adobe homes built into the side of the mountain. 

 

                The afternoon ended with us stopping at a roadside viewing area where Navajos were selling hand-made necklaces and rings at prices much less than in the tourist areas.  Jayne bought some gifts there.  Afterward, we returned to our motel for some relaxing at poolside and some refreshment.  At about 5 PM, John and Loncie said their goodbyes.  It was a tiring day for two 80 year olds. 

 

                The rest of us talked and then went for dinner at the Holiday Inn with Silver Dawn outside.  It was at this time that Virgil told me that we were the only two white folks that John has invited to his home. 

 

                Upon our return, Virgil thanks us for the visit saying that it was too short.  We extended an invitation to Virgil and Mirakhel, sans Silver Dawn, to visit us during a summer at our beach condo in Westhampton Beach.

 

                In the morning we drove back to the Albuquerque airport for our trip back to NYC.

 

                I have kept in touch with Virgil through the years.  His parents are still doing well.  It has been my honor to have been able to know such a noble American.

 

Marty Edelman

VVA 126

August 2018